Austen in August Review: The Genius of Jane Austen, Paula Byrne

Paula Byrne’s  The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things was a truly innovative biography in how it told the story of Austen’s life through the objects which remain from her life-time.  With this book, Byrne is expanding on her earlier book Jane Austen and the Theatre which was first released in 2002.  It does rather beg the question whether this re-release and re-brand is little more than an attempt to cash in on the various bicentennials which Miss Austen has been enjoying over the past few years and the fact that she is shortly to star in a very ugly and inaccurate bank note.  However, once I started the book, I was so caught up that any misgivings were set aside.  Paula Byrne is an incredibly engaging writer and her enthusiasm for her subject is obvious and engaging.  Due to the ill-starred amateur dramatics in Mansfield Park, there has been a long-held tradition that the strait-laced Miss Austen disapproved of the stage, but here Byrne argues not only that this was far from the case but also that Austen’s knowledge of and passion for the theatre was in fact at the core of her writing.

On the surface, the question of whether Jane Austen liked watching plays may seem trivial but in piecing together the context in which her novels were written, Byrne helps us towards an entirely fresh understanding of Austen’s work.  Byrne goes through Austen’s correspondence and shows that whenever she had the opportunity, Jane Austen went to the theatre around two or three times a week.  Even when she was not able to, she maintained a keen interest in the careers of the celebrity stage performers of the day.  She expressed dissatisfaction when one actor who had been a fixture in Bath theatres transferred to London.  She wondered whether one particularly emotive player would be too much for her young nieces.  At one point she says she felt like swearing when she heard that Sarah Siddons would not be appearing in King John that evening.

It hardly seems convincing that Austen disliked the theatre.  Indeed, Byrne even puts forward the controversial theory that Austen’s infamous long creative silence while she was living in Bath was less the sign of a depressed mind and more perhaps that she was going out a lot, seeing a lot of plays and maybe just not having the time to sit down and write.  Byrne also points out the tradition of Austen family putting on amateur productions in their own home and that even when she got to the grand old age of thirty-five, Austen played Mrs Candour in Richard Sheridan’s School for Scandal.  Not so disapproving of home dramatics either then.

Indeed, setting aside the Lovers’ Vows episode in Mansfield Park, many of the characters express admiration for the theatre.   Byrne tracks how in Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby and the Dashwoods read Hamlet together.  Emma Woodhouse is hardly literary – her penchant for drawing up reading lists rather than actually going through them is a plot point – but even she can quote from Romeo and Juliet.  So clearly, plays are not even always bad within her books.  More interestingly, Byrne analyses how certain theatrical traditions are echoed in the characters that Austen has created.  Northanger’s Catherine Moreland is the stereotypical naive country girl so popular in Regency drama.  Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Collins is an ignorant hypocrite along the lines of Moliere’s Tartuffe.  Even Elizabeth is another example of the sprightly heroine which also dominated Regency dramas, able to to defeat the high-ranking aristocrats despite her inferior connections.  Byrne explains how in many popular Regency plays, there was the conflict between country and town, with the naive ingenue arriving in London from the country and having all of their illusions shattered.  The battle lines are drawn.  Pride and Prejudice inverts this since Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy bring the town to the country, with Mrs Bennet loudly defending her territory against the rude incomer.  Austen was at heart a satirist, right from the beginning with the burlesques of Love and Freindship and although she sheathed her claws for the majority of her novels, she never quite abandoned her roots.

Particularly compelling was Byrne’s analysis of Sense and Sensibility.  She points out that the themes of Sheridan’s play The Rivals echo the battle between sense and sensibility and in particular ‘the errors of an ill-directed imagination’, something which also overshadows much of Northanger Abbey.  Yet it is also undeniable how many theatrical devices are at play in the action of Sense and Sensibility – Marianne leaps up and believes she  sees Willoughby, but no, it is Edward Ferrars.  Later she thinks Willoughby will be at the door, but it is Colonel Brandon.  Edward expects to find Elinor, but there is Lucy Steele as well.  The characters are constantly mistaking people for each other.  Later Mrs Jennings and Elinor are at cross purposes over whether a proposal has taken place.  The dialogue between Elinor and Lucy Steele is charged with what each of them are not saying – they both know that the other one knows they know they know.  There is true absurdity that Edward Ferrars is giving up his inheritance to marry a poor fortune-less girl who he does not love.  All of these are examples of the kind of mis-direction which was a classic feature of Regency comedy and puts the whole novel in a different light.  Is it because Austen was such an avid follower of theatre that her dialogue remains quite so fresh?

Still, although an ex-English-literature student, Byrne helped me to see how my own textual ignorance had allowed me to misunderstand much of the action of Mansfield Park.  Having had no idea of the significance of the play Lovers’ Vows (I had had a vague notion that it was not actually a real play), it seems that I was missing a good deal of crucial context.  Indeed, according to Byrne, the novel’s first volume ‘is only partially intelligible without knowledge of Lovers’ Vows‘.  Small wonder then that it’s the book which people tend to like the least.  Byrne explains that the play signals ‘Austen’s engagement with the subject of prohibited relationships and with a long-standing debate about women’s autonomy in courtship‘.  An intriguing choice for a book which sees one woman commit adultery, another elope and another flat out refuse to marry a man she dislikes.  Famously, in Northanger Abbey, Austen mocked Samuel Richardson’s assumption that no woman should fall in love before the man in question had proposed, so this should not be so surprising, but here something quite different is happening.

Lovers’ Vows features a fallen woman (played by Maria Bertram) reunited with her son (played by Henry Crawford) while a vivacious young woman (played by Mary Crawford) propositions her tutor and clergyman (played by Edmund Bertram).  The parallels are painfully obvious once you have some idea of the story, but given that most people read Mansfield Park in ignorance of all of this, we are missing out on a lot.  Mr Yates plays the wicked Baron, but he too has a parallel when Sir Thomas comes home unexpectedly and the whole production has to cease.  Yet there is even more going on here, Byrne explains how the play that Tom Bertram had wanted to pick was one where the apparent heir to an estate is inadequate and a more noble replacement is found.  Then when they settle on Lovers’ Vows, Tom decides to play the butler.  All of this is Austen highlighting Tom’s inadequacies and unsuitability to inherit Mansfield Park.  Then there is the conflict between how Henry Crawford wants to speak his lines and how Mr Yates wishes to bellow them – this is Austen poking fun at a contemporary debate about new fashions in acting.  We have missed all of this but Austen’s contemporary readers would have got it all.

Not good

The Genius of Jane Austen explains why Austen never really seemed to consider becoming a dramatist herself – her use of the free indirect voice was revolutionary in the way that it took her both inside and outside of her characters but it also gave her far more control over her cast and how they behaved than a playwright or director would have ever had.  That this is such a key part of her work is, Byrne postulates, the reason why ‘film and television adaptations – brilliantly as they may render the surface of Jane Austen’s comic world – can never fully satisfy the serious reader of the novels themselves.  Screenwriters find it almost impossible to render the ironic third-person authorial voice that is so important to Austen’s narrative method‘.  This explains why many of us heard the news that ITV plans to put together a new production of Pride and Prejudice with more of a sigh than a cheer.

With varying degrees of enthusiasm, Byrne tracks through the various adaptations which have graced stages and screens both big and small.  She notes the boom in Austen-mania since the mid 1990s, but also notes the much earlier depictions such as AA Milne’s Elizabeth Bennet and the fluffy and frivolous 1940 MGM production.  I did find myself wondering whether Byrne’s antipathy for Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma was influenced by Ms Paltrow’s current popularity status, but I agreed wholeheartedly that Alicia Silverstone better embodies Emma Woodhouse’s mixture of altruism and spoiled self-centredness.  Byrne also notes how ubiquitous Austen spin-offs truly are in the modern day, pondering whether there will soon be ‘a TV channel entirely devoted to Austen‘.

We misunderstand Austen in so very many, many ways.  We think of her as a romance novelist, we believe her family when they say that she preferred to stay at home even though we can see in her letters that she travelled.  We believe them when they say that she never had a cross word to say about anyone even though her letters are full of digs at the neighbours and her novels are packed with mockery.  Byrne states firmly that this ‘twentieth century assumption‘ that Austen was ‘deeply suspicious of urban pleasures‘ is false – Jane Austen was a clever woman.  Byrne’s novel is far more academic in its style than The Real Jane Austen but it makes the intelligence behind Austen’s work inescapable, despite it being something so long denied even by those close to her – and just in case there was any risk of her point being missed, Byrne has even updated her book’s title to make it more clear.  Jane Austen.  Genius.  Read all about it here.


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The Genius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theatre and Why She Is a Hit in Hollywood by Paula Byrne
Published by HarperCollins UK on May 18th 2017
Genres: Literary Criticism, General, Biography & Autobiography, Literary, History, Women, Performing Arts, Film, History & Criticism, Modern, 19th Century
Pages: 240
ISBN: 9780008225674

This post contains affiliate links which you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

2 thoughts on “Austen in August Review: The Genius of Jane Austen, Paula Byrne

  1. You quote from Byrne’s book regarding film and television adaptations of Austen’s works manages, in a way, to sum up part of the problem I have with Jane Austen.

    I’ve mentioned this before, though I have seen most of the major screen adaptations of her works I have still yet to read one! The last attempt being a couple of months ago when I had another try this time with ‘Emma’ and once again failed. Yet I do realise from reading your reviews etc that I am missing out, and I now understand that the film and television versions do not get across what seems to make Jane Austen the great writer that she is acknowledge to be.

    As an aside – I think the opposite of this is what made the TV version of Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ – that has just finished being shown on UK TV – so good, as it not only visualised the book perfectly but the threatening nature of the plot came across as well. A review of the last episode in The Sunday Times’ (UK) by Louis Wise ended up by saying ‘…great as it was, I never want to see it again. It laid out its thesis too well.’

    1. Thank you for reading 🙂
      It’s an interesting combination – Austen lays out her plot in the style of a play, there are scenes and episodes which translate well to the screen but she dives in and out of her character’s perspectives that you get a complete eye-view which would be impossible onscreen. The voice of Jane Austen itself is ever present – hence why there is a real loss to almost all television adaptations. Also because she doesn’t really go in for character description but likes her cast’s behaviour to define them, if much is cut from the book, a lot is lost. She was too good, too tidy in her workings. Dickens’ books go all over the place and thus they’re easier to reshape for films.

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